It's a Crime

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Bill Gladstone writes from Toronto:

At last summer’s Jewish genealogy conference in Toronto, I was intrigued when one speaker, Yale Reisner, mentioned that certain Hebrew words had crept into the Polish language in pre-war Poland. For example, machloket, which as you know means a theological dispute (applied talmudically and rabbinically), was apparently used by Poles to describe a gang-style fight on the street. What more can you tell your readers about this interesting linguistic phenomenon?

What I can tell you is that Mr. Reisner is right, and that Hebrew mah.loket, “disagreement” or “dispute,” which gives us Yiddish makhloykes, turns up in Polish both as machlojke (the Polish “j” is pronounced like a “y”) and machloje, a machlojke being a little machloje. The existence of these two variants demonstrates that they were used by Polish Christians who had no knowledge of Yiddish and who took the ke of makhloykes to be the Polish diminutive rather than part of the original word. My friend, the Polish-born Israeli writer Uri Orlev, who is responsible for most of the information in today’s column, told me that he himself knows the word machloje not in the sense of a gang fight but in that of an argument or shady business deal, from which comes the verb machlowac´, to act as a go-between or to put one over on somebody. But that machloje should mean both a shady deal and a gang fight is perfectly in keeping with the general tendency of Hebrew/Yiddish words in Polish, as can be seen by some of the following examples:

• Twise (Polish “w” is pronounced like a “v” or sometimes — as here — an “f”), a prison. From Yiddish tfise, from Hebrew t’fisah, the act of catching or being caught.

• Szachraj, a petty swindler. From Yiddish soykher, a merchant or cheat, from Hebrew soh.er, a merchant.

• Meline, a hideout, especially of thieves; a place to cache stolen goods; a private dwelling or apartment in which bootleg liquor is sold. From Yiddish meline, a hideout, from Hebrew m’lunah, a place to sleep.

• Lejkech, a thief who specializes in pickpocketing drunks. From Hebrew loke’ah., someone who takes.

• Szmaje, a police interrogation. From Hebrew shmi’ah, hearing.

• Nawke, a woman thief. From Yiddish nafke, a prostitute, from Aramaic nafka, meaning the same thing.

• Tref, something that can’t be stolen because there are police around or in the know. From Yiddish treyf, not kosher, from Hebrew t’refah, non-kosher meat.

• Szytwa, a card partner, cheating at cards. From Yiddish shutef, a partner, from Hebrew shutaf, meaning the same thing.

• Szaber, a pickaxe for making a hole in a wall; also, the act of ransacking or looting a home. This yields the verb szabrowac´, to loot, and the noun szabrownik, a looter. From the Hebrew verb shavar, to break. My friend Uri, who survived part of World War II as a boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, remembers that szaber was the word used for ransacking the empty apartments of Jews who had already been sent to the death camps by the Nazis. He himself was often sent as a szabrownik to look for food or usable items in such apartments.

Of course, not every Yiddish word found in Polish has to do with the underworld or crime. Quite a few do not, such as balagula, “wagon driver,” myszures, “servant,” myszygiene, “crazy,” and so on. But there is no doubt that a disproportionate number are connected with criminal activity. Why?

The answer, I think, is that, until the 20th century, social contact in Poland between Christians and Jews was probably most intensive among criminals. This is not really so surprising. Jews and Christians in Poland traditionally led separate lives, even if they met in the streets, shops, and marketplaces. Upper-class Poles did not socialize with rich Jews; middle-class Poles did not socialize with middle-class Jews, and lower-class Poles certainly did not socialize with poor Jews. The taboos on Christian-Jewish socialization broke down most in those circles where numerous others taboos were ignored, too — that is, in the world of crime. Jewish and Polish thieves, burglars, pickpockets, fences, pimps, prostitutes, bootleggers and swindlers had no compunction about working closely with each other because they had no compunction about disobeying social norms in general. And since law-breakers in all societies tend to develop thieves’ argots, that is, private languages that help hide their activities from the outside world, it was entirely natural for Polish criminals to borrow Hebrew/Yiddish vocabulary from Jews that other Poles would not understand.

There are other European countries in which one can point to similar phenomena. If one looks at the Dutch slang of Amsterdam known as Bargoens, for example, or the largely extinct lower-class vernaculars of Germany known collectively as Rotwelsch, one also sees a great deal of thieves’ argot deriving from Hebrew and Yiddish. The subject of underworld ties between Jews and Christians in Europe is one that, for understandable reasons, Jewish historians have tended to shy away from, but it is an interesting one, linguistically as well as sociologically, that deserves serious investigation.






Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.